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THEORIA: TRAVEL AS PARAPHOR; Part 3 - Discourses and Wide Images

Discourse is here influenced by Michel Foucault’s concept of discourse as the conflux of language and power relations, and Greg Ulmer’s bundling of several such discourses into a group called the popcycle. The set of discourses are family, community, literacy, entertainment, church, street, and career. These discourses are an interrelated set of institutions which together define our identity. When similar contents or images appear across multiple discourses in an individual’s popcycle, they are called wide images — highly affective, striking images or memories from one’s life. This repetition of images indicates the repetition of learning processes in the multiple discourses of the popcycle at different times in an individual’s life: the family discourse begins at home as an infant; community (history) begins at the age of four or five in elementary education, which is simultaneous with the formal entrance into literacy; street discourse begins sometime in adolescence, when an individual develops a social circle of friends and activities separate from their family or household practices; and career or professional discourse begins with secondary education in early adulthood (Ulmer 2003, 24-25). When an individual engages the task of learning the idiosyncrasies of a new discourse they will take pertinent information from the previous iterations of successful learning they have already completed.

In “Darwin’s ‘Tree of Nature’ and Other Images of Wide Scope,” Howard Gruber presents a detailed examination of Darwin’s use of repeating images in On the Origin of Species using the notebooks from the preceding journey aboard the H. M. S. Beagle and the work’s subsequent emergence from drafts, articles and essays. An “Image of Wide Scope” is, according to Gruber, “[a]n image… [that] functions as a schema capable of assimilating to itself a wide range of perceptions, actions, ideas. This width depends in part on the metaphoric structure peculiar to the given image, in part on the intensity of the emotion which has been invested in it, that is, its value to the person” (1978, 135). Five such images in Darwin’s notes used in the development of the theory of the evolution of species via natural selection: an irregularly branching tree; the tangled bank; wedging to interrupt a receiving surface; human warfare; and artificial selection (ibid, 132). Gruber goes on to hypothesize that a scientist may have a set of several operative “Wide Images” utilized to guide research imperatives and problem-solving endeavors throughout the course of their career, although the number is somewhat limited because the ordering capabilities of such images would be contingent upon easy recall, enumeration and emotional investment on the part of the individual scientist/problem-solver (ibid, 138).

Gruber believes that there is nothing unusual about the appearance of the Images of Wide Scope in Darwin’s scientific notes. To supplement this specific case study of a single scientist’s workings with Wide Images, we can find even more potent examples in the work of another famous revolutionary theorizer in science: Albert Einstein. Science historian Gerald Holton searched through notes and biographical material on Einstein and other contemporary scientists working in the fields of study involved in the minting of Relativity Theory (1973, 362).

Holton asked what it was that made it possible for a young Einstein, as opposed to others far more immersed and versed in their fields of inquiry, to put mathematical, electrical and physical problems, theories, and experimental evidence together in such a way to successfully solve extremely difficult problems afflicting many areas of advanced research. In Holton’s findings, the Wide Images appear as "themata" playing a dominant role in the initiation and acceptance of certain individual scientific insights (ibid, 11). Einstein’s operative themata running up to the publication of his first article on the Special Theory of Relativity in 1905 (ibid, 362) included a paradoxical image emerging as the outcome of a thought experiment that first appeared in an epiphany during his studies at the Kanton Schule of Aarau in 1895-6. This famous thought experiment consists of the "image" of riding on a beam of light, and the implications that the hypothesized sensory data encountered would mean against different theories of electromagnetism. Einstein postulated that the beam of light would appear as a spatially oscillating electromagnetic field at rest if the viewer were traveling at the same velocity as the beam (ibid, 358). For Holton, this thought experiment is only one instance of Einstein’s commitment of the concept of the field, or “thema of the continuum” (ibid, 275). This recognition of the thema of the continuum/field in science is similar to Darwin’s Wide Image of the “tree of nature”: an image that guides a thinker’s understanding of discrete, multiple, and frequently contrary data points and observations. Neither nature’s "tree" nor the "continuum" actually exists in the exterior world, and they can never be directly viewable in the data studied. They both stand in metaphorical relationship to investigative processes and findings.

The case of Einstein’s thought-experiment image of riding a beam of light can offer us even more in the elucidation of Wide Images because there is biographical evidence that this beam ride was induced by an even earlier image from Einstein’s childhood: a memory of such wide scope that it could be considered the paragon example of a Wide Image. When Albert was four or five years old, he received the gift of a magnetic pocket compass. At the time, he was fascinated by the observation that no matter which way he turned, the little needle in the compass always pointed in the same direction. There was then no scientific explanation for why the needle in a magnetic compass always pointed north. Einstein never forgot that compass or the fascination it induced, and later in his life he tackled the multi-disciplinary task of explaining it. In his own autobiography written when he was 67, he recounts the image and its story again, after propagating it anecdotally to friends and biographers several times throughout his life. He wrote: “I can still remember - or at least I believe I can remember - that this experience made a deep and lasting impression on me. Something deeply hidden had to be behind things” (ibid, 359). This monstrous pearl of a Wide Image gripped Einstein from such a young age that it predates his entrance into most any manner of formal instruction in matters of the world. One can easily interpret Einstein’s illustrious and influential career as a search for the key to this one little lock.

Einstein’s compass became a guiding, recurrent image that influenced him in pursuing the fore-front of contemporary physics and mathematics. That light might be related to electromagnetism, and electromagnetism was related to the hidden force guiding the compass’s needle-point toward north was enough to feed Einstein’s curiosity, for the seed of fascination had been sewn in his childhood, in his attraction to a phenomenon that at the time of his entering the Polytechnicum in Zurich had not been completely worked out. It is apparent from the early age that Albert’s fascination with the compass began that Images of Wide Scope are not confined to discipline or profession-oriented problem solving and inventive reasoning.

Einstein’s compass continued to re-emerge as he entered his career discourse in beginning his formal studies of physics because it had a profound affect on him as a child, motivating his fascination with the natural world as he was learning his family discourse (ibid, 27). But what happens when one’s discourses and wide images are used to guide travel? This is the question answered by examining Le Corbusier’s movements peculiar movements in the next post.


  • Gruber, Howard. 1978. "Darwin’s ‘Tree of Nature’ and Other Images of Wide Scope." In On Aesthetics in Science. Ed. J. Wechsler. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

  • Holton, Gerald. 1973. Thematic Origins of Scientific Thought: Kepler to Einstein. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

  • Ulmer, Gregory. 2003. Internet Invention: From Literacy to Electracy. NY: Pearson Education, Inc.

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